ST. LOUIS - A bungled execution in Oklahoma provides death penalty opponents with a fresh, startling example of how lethal injections can go wrong. But the odds of successfully challenging the nation's main form of capital punishment will probably hinge on exactly what caused the inmate's apparent agony.
If four-time convicted felon Clayton Lockett suffered because of a collapsed vein or improperly inserted needle, that would suggest human error was to blame rather than an underlying flaw in the execution system.
If the drugs or the secrecy surrounding them played a role, defense attorneys could have a wider legal opening to attack the injection method, plus powerful new evidence to press the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved, legal experts say.
A day after the execution went awry, attorneys for some death-row inmates began planning new appeals or updating existing cases based on events in Oklahoma. Many called for moratoriums and independent investigations.
"Every prison is saying, 'We have it under control, trust us,'" said Texas attorney Maurie Levin, who spent Wednesday preparing new briefs questioning that state's execution practices. "This just underscores in bold that we can't trust them, and prisons have to be accountable to the public and transparent in the method by which they carry out executions."
The 38-year-old Lockett, convicted of shooting a woman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs was administered Tuesday. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head.
Authorities halted the execution, but Lockett died of a suspected heart attack more than 40 minutes after the process began.